Over the years I’ve repeatedly documented the wooly thinking, religious apologetics, and general mushbrain-y analysis at “The Stone”, a philosophy blog at the New York Times. But very rarely the editors will deign to let a rationalist or—horrors!—an atheist have a column. And today it’s Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who is about the most “militant” atheist—and “hardest” determinist—I know. You may have read his 2011 book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, a defense of scientism that had the honor of being named “the worst book of the year” by Leon Wieseltier. I thought it was a pretty good book, though a bit tendentious, but certainly much better than all the tripe that passes as criticism of “scientism” (Wieseltier has purveyed some of that stomach lining).
Rosenberg’s theme is the fallibility of our thinking that consciousness produces absolutely accurate information about our actions, thoughts, and motivations. He maintains that this is wrong: just as when we exercise our “theory of mind,” imputing beliefs, intentions, or motivations to others, so that faculty is equally fallible when turned upon ourselves. Certainly our feeling of being a free agent consciously willing an action, and thereby bringing it about, is wrong, as many experiments have no shown, and as I’ve discussed endlessly. Rosenberg goes a bit further:
We never have direct access to our thoughts. As Peter Carruthers first argued, self-consciousness is just mind reading turned inward.
How do we know this? Well, Hume would have answered that introspection tells us so. But that won’t wash for experimental scientists. They demand evidence. Some of it comes from the fMRI work that established the existence of a distinct mind-reading module, more from autistic children, whose deficits in explaining and predicting the behavior of others come together with limitations on self-awareness and self-reporting of their own motivations. Patients suffering from schizophrenia manifest deficiencies in both other-mind reading and self-mind reading. If these two capacities were distinct one would expect at least some autistic children and schizophrenics to manifest one of these capacities without the other.
That we read our own minds the same way we read other minds is evident in what cognitive science tells us about consciousness and working memory — the dual imagistic and silent-speech process that we employ to calculate, decide, choose among options “immediately before the mind.”
. . . The upshot of all these discoveries is deeply significant, not just for philosophy, but for us as human beings: There is no first-person point of view.
Our access to our own thoughts is just as indirect and fallible as our access to the thoughts of other people. We have no privileged access to our own minds. If our thoughts give the real meaning of our actions, our words, our lives, then we can’t ever be sure what we say or do, or for that matter, what we think or why we think it.
Philosophers’ claims that by reflecting on itself thought reliably reveals our nature, grounds knowledge, gives us free will, endows our behavior with moral value, are all challenged. And the threat doesn’t stem from some tendentious scientistic worldview. It emerges from the detailed understanding of the mind that cognitive science and neuroscience are providing.
There’s considerable merit in this argument, though I’ll be thinking more about it. But to the extent that Rosenberg is right, it puts the lie to the claim that introspection itself can give us truths as reliable as those obtained by “scientific” methods: empirical observation, prediction, and corroboration by others. Introspection is by definition an uncorroborated process, and if you make a claim about the nature of reality based on introspection alone, there’s no reason to trust it. Even when you say, “I’m hungry”, you may be wrong; the only truth there is that your consciousness tells you that you feel hungry. But of course your eyes could be bigger than your stomach. One of my favorite quotes, by former pastor Mike Aus, expresses this nicely:
When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be, and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.